Should the international response to mass killings be the same, regardless of where they take place?

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Posted Nov 15 2015 by Dave Darby of

I’m guessing that most people’s answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’. There are no countries, surely, whose citizens are more important than the citizens of any other country?

I’m aware that this is an extremely sensitive subject, and so I want to make it clear from the start that, along with all reasonable people everywhere, I condemn terrorist violence and sympathise with the friends and families of the victims in Paris.

But it would be good if the international response to killings anywhere was geared towards helping reduce terrorist attacks in future. That’s the most important thing, I think. And just maybe, unbalanced responses to the deaths of Westerners versus non-Westerners may not be the best way to achieve this.

I’m light-skinned and my partner is brown-skinned, and for her, there was something not quite right about the response to the Paris attacks, compared to the response to deaths elsewhere. She was asked on social media to send a message to the people of France, and to encourage all her friends to do the same. It was very interesting to see things from her perspective. Her response is below. See what you think.

The Iraq war resulted in the deaths of half a million Iraqis. and for what? Do you think that Blair and Bush genuinely believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction; or that the Iraq invasion reduced the number of radical Islamists in the world? Do you think that the invasion had anything at all to do with the vast profits that were made by corporate oil companies, construction companies and arms manufacturers; or with Saddam’s decision to reject US demands that oil-producing countries only sell their oil in dollars, and to accept payment in euros? Which of these reasons seem more likely to you? Whatever the real reasons, to the families of dead Iraqis, the attacks were orchestrated by people who were as much terrorists as Al Qaeda.

What happened in India in 2008 is a more direct comparison, because the perpetrators of the attacks were radical Islamists, resulting in the deaths of 164 people – but the international response was more muted, and certainly didn’t involve the projection of the Indian flag onto iconic buildings in Western capitals. Granted, this may be a new idea that didn’t occur to anyone at the time, but nevertheless, the international response was not as pronounced.

Of course there has been a huge response to killings in and refugees from Syria, but the numbers involved in Syria are huge. The question is: what was the international response to the first 150 deaths in Syria?

I don’t think that the reason for the imbalance in response of Western people has anything to do with racism. Rather, I think that it’s perfectly normal for people to have a greater emotional response when victims are perceived to be more ‘like them’. Western people watch videos of the killings in Paris, and think: ‘that could have been me’, in ways that they just don’t when they see massacres in Afghanistan, Africa or India.

But what are the implications? It’s not difficult to imagine the response of dark-skinned people everywhere (and especially Muslims) to the outpouring of sympathy for white, Western deaths that is lacking if the victims are dark and non-Western. It may cause the kind of resentment that fuels radicalism – which is exactly the opposite of what we want.

Personally, I’m happy with the huge response to the killings in Paris, but would like to see a similar response to the next massacre in a non-Western country. Let’s see Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian flags on iconic buildings in future. Dealing with deaths in an even-handed way will, I think, reduce tensions that could lead to the radicalisation of Muslims – especially those living in Western countries where the imbalance can be seen more clearly. So what I’m saying is, let’s not play down the response to killings in Western countries, let’s play up the response to killings elsewhere.

Here’s my partner’s response to the social media request. I’m still not 100% sure about this one, but I do share her unease about the imbalance in the international response to disasters, based it seems on either the level of development of the country involved, or worse, the skin colour of its inhabitants. What do you think?

‘My first gut reaction to seeing the coverage, including video footage, about this event last night was to be deeply saddened and horrified and I found myself looking for more and more information, and becoming tearful when I saw wounded people being dragged through the streets by their friends, or seeing a woman hanging by her fingers from a first floor window having escaped the shooting.

My second gut reaction was one of shame. I haven’t reacted this way when I’ve seen or heard about a similar number of people being killed by terrorists in non-Western countries. I’m a brown-skinned person but am agnostic and completely Westernised so I identify much more with the people in Paris than those in Iraq or Afghanistan and I guess that’s why my first gut reaction was as it was . But I have had to really reflect on the impact of swathes of people like me reacting in this way. I think it is normal human psychology to empathise more with people like oneself, but perhaps we need to challenge those gut responses with something more considered, because….

My third thought was how then must the projection of the French flag onto the major iconic buildings of the world be perceived by e.g. a disenfranchised young Muslim boy in his bedroom in Bradford. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have an outpouring of support and solidarity for the France, but I am saying that for that boy in Bradford and many like him, there is a really strong inadvertent message in this response….that “people like me don’t matter as much to the world”. We then have, I would suggest, a situation where we are creating more of the thing that we are trying to reduce. I know that you have acknowledged the victims of terrorism elsewhere in the world in your message to the people of France but I would like to see a response that values human life equally everywhere.’